Why Terrorism Works | Alan M. Dershowitz

Summary of: Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge
By: Alan M. Dershowitz


In ‘Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge’, author Alan M. Dershowitz delves deep into the roots of terrorism since the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 and examines the patterns of violence over the years. The book serves as a stark reminder that the approach to fighting terrorism has failed, allowing it to thrive as the defining issue of our age. Furthermore, the author argues that addressing root causes won’t sufficiently deal with terrorism, and instead, we must refuse to engage with terrorists and their political demands. Only through a combination of deterrence and punishment can terrorism be effectively combated.

Seeds of Terrorism

The Munich massacre in 1972 was a seminal moment in the history of terrorism. The Israeli team members were taken hostage and eventually killed by Palestinian terrorists. The German government’s response to the attack and subsequent negotiations with the terrorists created a blueprint for today’s terrorism. The Germans failed to prevent the attack despite knowing about the possibility and botched the rescue operation. They also struck a secret deal with the terrorists to release three of them, thus leading to further acts of terrorism. The Munich massacre laid the groundwork for contemporary terrorism and emphasized the need to respond firmly to such acts of violence. It highlighted the fact that even if terrorists have legitimate grievances, resorting to violence and terror will not lead to listening or understanding. Terrorism has become the defining issue of our age, and a tough response is necessary to counter it.

Rational Response to Terrorism

Many people argue that fighting terrorism requires addressing its root causes. This premise is false and responding to terrorists with anything other than military action represents a capitulation to their political goals. The international community’s awarding of Nobel Peace Prizes and honorary degrees to terrorist leaders promotes their cause. The rational response to terrorism is to reject its root causes and establish the principle that terrorism will not be tolerated. Terrorism should lead to punishment, not political dialogue.

The Paradoxes of Terrorism

Addressing the root causes of terrorism may actually incite more terrorist attacks, while brutally repressing it fuels its growth. But of the two paradoxes, the first is stronger. Terrorist movements rely on charismatic leaders to advance their cause, and refusing to engage with these leaders can compromise their effectiveness and support. Meanwhile, suppressing terrorism only makes potential followers more susceptible to recruitment. Thus, degrading the capabilities and credibility of powerful terrorist leaders may be the most effective way of combating terrorism.

Appeasement of Terrorism in Europe

Despite its dismal record in dealing with terrorism, European governments have preferred appeasement and negotiation to punishment and incapacitation. Starting with the 1968 hijacking that resulted in the release of hijackers and Arab prisoners, European governments repeatedly rewarded terrorists with political concessions without imposing severe punishment. The trend continued with the release of the Palestinian gunmen who attacked an El Al airplane in Athens, and hijackers who attacked El Al planes in Zurich and Rome. Even the adoption of a long-sought Arab resolution recognizing the “inalienable rights” of Palestinians by the United Nations General Assembly in response to increased Palestinian terrorism did not deter European appeasement. This culminated in the Munich airport attack that resulted in the release of terrorists, and the Swiss Air jet bombing that killed 47 people. European governments also released terrorists who murdered the U.S. assistant military attaché in Jordan, and those who attempted to take over a flight from Amsterdam to New York. In contrast, the author believes that terrorism should only be met with punishment and incapacitation instead of negotiation and consideration of root causes.

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